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Mastery of the Air
Prior to the First World War it was realised in military circles that reconnaissance information gained from the air would ultimately have to be fought for. Following the success of RFC reconnaissance in the British Army manoeuvres of 1912 General Sir James Grierson stated: ‘It is impossible to carry on warfare unless we have mastery of the air’ (Editorial Comment, ‘Guns versus Aeroplane’, Flight Magazine, 49 (IV) (7 Dec 1912), p. 1127). What could not be defined beforehand and proved problematic throughout the war was what constituted ‘mastery of the air’. In current parlance the terms, ‘air supremacy’, ‘air superiority’, and ‘favourable air situation’ linked to time and space are used to describe the ‘mastery’ required to facilitate air operations in support of the army (RAF, British Air and Space Power Doctrine AP3000 Fourth Edition). During the First World War, with airpower in its juvenile state these subtleties were being learnt. Trenchard applied his policy using two types of patrol. The offensive patrol, essentially armed reconnaissance, which penetrated up to 15 miles into German airspace with a railway station or airfield as a target; and from early 1916, as the RFC scouts were formed into dedicated fighting Squadrons, continuous line patrols which flew around 30 miles of line, about 3 miles on the German side. Whilst recognizing the offensive characteristics of airpower, Trenchard’s policy was a clumsy attempt to gain continuous air superiority along the whole British front. The application of the policy produced a scale of air operations that when coupled with the RFC’s decentralised organisational structure stretched to breaking point an inefficient procurement system, an inadequate aviation industry, and an immature pilot training system.
The RFC’s Organisational Structure
When the RFC deployed to
in August 1914 with a mixed bag of 63 aircraft organised into 4 Squadrons Henderson, as RFC commander, retained tight central control keeping all aerial reconnaissance strategic at GHQ. Sir John French had been impressed during the battle of the France Marne when the RFC flew tactically in direct support of the two BEF Corps commanders Haig and General Smith-Dorrien and decided he wanted to decentralise the RFC by attaching units directly to Army Corps. This initiative evolved into a large scale reorganisation during the winter of 1914-15 as struggled to retain uniformity and flexibility whilst ensuring an equitable distribution and use of the increasing but still limited RFC resources. The outcome was an RFC HQ and RFC Wings, comprising of a least two Squadrons and commanded by a full Colonel, allocated to each Army. Henderson had diluted French’s decentralization initiative, the RFC had remained an autonomous Corps under central control by an RFC general officer, but effective operational control had passed to the individual Army commanders. Each Army had gained its own air force. Airpower’s unique ability to rapidly concentrate resources to achieve effect in time and space had been compromised even before it had been identified. Henderson may well have perceived this as early as the summer of 1915. He had wanted to concentrate his initial Vickers fighters into fighting Squadrons under the control of RFC HQ but was persuaded, much against his better judgment and under significant pressure from his subordinate commanders, Trenchard in particular, that the best way to inculcate the offensive spirit was to ‘penny packet’ them amongst the front line Squadrons. The arrival late 1915 and early 1916 of Henderson ’s volunteers changed the BEF into a mass army forcing another programme of change and increased growth on the RFC. A new command structure was required to cater for the planned 60 service and 20 reserve Squadrons. This was outlined in two Army Council letters dated 25 August and 10 December 1915: Kitchener
‘The RFC in the Field, currently divided into three wings, each attached to an army headquarters, was to be reconstituted as a brigade. As fresh units became available, new brigades were to be formed until there was one for each of the BEF’s armies. It was originally planned that each brigade would comprise three wings, but in the event there were only two until the middle of 1918. One, designated the Corps Wing, was for general [Corps level] co-operation duties; the other, designated the Army Wing, was for army reconnaissance, bombing and air fighting duties.’ Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p. 33.
By the start of the
Somme there were four RFC brigades, one for each army, and a Headquarters Wing attached directly to GHQ, a centralised reserve which could be employed wherever it was most needed. This Brigade structure served the RFC and RAF until the end of the war. Trenchard’s first real experience of the limitations of this organisational structure came towards the end of July 1916. By this time the German Air Service, relocating aircraft from , had increased its presence on Fourth Armies front and both Fourth Brigade and RFC HQ Wing fighting Squadrons found themselves being stretched. Having managed to negotiate the relocation of only one fighting Squadron, No 32 from First Brigade to reinforce Fourth Army, he was forced to try an alternative approach (Thomas G. Bradbeer, ‘The Battle for Air Supremacy over the Somme’, p. 69.). In the hope of drawing off enemy fighters from the Verdun Somme area he ordered the disengaged armies to carry out bombing attacks on their own fronts:
‘There are very few German aircraft opposite the 1st , 2nd, and 3rd Army fronts (i.e. the disengaged fronts) but I hope the result of our air work during the last two days will induce the enemy to send more fighters back again.’ Trenchard, quoted in: Sir Robert Saundby, Air Bombardment The Story of its Development (London: Clarke Irwin, 1961), p. 17.
The Germans did not oblige and kept their main strength focused on the
Somme front. From September 1916 the inherent limitation of allocating a fixed number of Squadrons to each Army became cruelly evident. Following the mauling of July and August 1916 German aviation re-equipped and reorganised. By mid October the arrival of the new Albatros D1 and Halberstadt D2 scouts, fitted with twin forward firing machine guns and formed into ‘hunting squadrons’ or ‘Jasta’s’, had tipped the technological pendulum. This coupled with the establishment of the ‘Luftstreitkrafte’ (Air Force) that placed all German military aviation under the control of one headquarters and one commander, enabling German aircraft to be concentrated where and when required, stripped the RFC of its air superiority. Almost two thirds of the RFC casualties during the Somme occurred between September and November and the support provided to the army by the Corps Squadrons tailed off significantly. The RFC technologically outclassed and unable to concentrate its resources left Trenchard with few alternatives. His response was to request an immediate expansion in the numbers of fighting squadrons attached to the BEF’s five armies, an increase of 20 that would give the RFC twice as many fighter squadrons as Corps Squadrons. Haig’s letter to the War Office fully supported Trenchard:
‘The fighters are of the first importance, for it is evident that we shall have to face a new struggle for the command of the air in the spring of 1917; and if we lose that, then neither reconnaissance machines nor bombers will help us.’ Haig, quoted in: Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962), p. 205.
Technologically outclassed, organisationally hamstrung but committed, by the first of Trenchard’s guiding principles, to support the 1917 Arras offensive the RFC was about to enter its lowest point in the war.